In the classic 1960 film Spartacus, the famous gladiator-turned-freedom-fighter (Kirk Douglas) enjoys a rare evening of peace with his beloved Varinia (Jean Simmons). As they recline in a meadowland indulge in the soft conversation of lovers, their talk turns to knowledge of the wide world.
Spartacus: I know nothing. Nothing! And I want to know. I want to... I want to know.
Varinia: Know what?
Why a star falls and a bird doesn't. Where the sun goes at night. Why the moon changes shape. I want to know know where the wind comes from.
I was at an overnight planning session for the Indiana Junior Classical League recently at Indiana University, and as I often do when visiting my alma mater, I took a walk around campus during the early morning before our meeting resumed. I followed a path different from my usual course and ended up by Rawles Hall, home of the mathematics department, went in, and found a poster for an upcoming lecture. Apart from definite articles and conjunctions, there was almost no word on that poster that I had either seen before or understood.
As I drifted back past more familiar buildings, I recalled the words of Spartacus and thought as I have so many times about all that I do not know. And like him, I want to know. I want to have a deeper understanding of mathematics so that I can truly grasp the famous words of Galileo that "mathematics is the alphabet with which God wrote the universe." I want to understand the language of numbers and mathematics and how they describe the universe. And speaking of the universe, I want know how forces work and interact with other and with matter, forces like the electromagnetic force and gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I want to explore the human sciences and understand the workings of the mind and consciousness and how to know which fonts and colors and arrangements of graphic information are best for reaching certain audiences to communicate certain things and I want to know how we know such things.
Like most people, I raced through my education. Spelling for fifteen minutes, math for half an hour, followed by reading and lunch and then social studies, P.E., and science. That was a day in elementary school. In junior high and high school, the pace quickened. Math...bell ring ... move down conveyor belt ... English ... bell ... conveyor belt ... Latinbellconveyorlunchconveyorchoirbellconveyorchemistrybellconveyorhistorybell. And why? It was mostly to memorize this or that, prove yourself through tests and projects, and then get some more. With such training how could I have approached undergraduate studies any differently? I remember once during my freshman year sitting in a class thinking I should be back in the dorm room completing some assignment. The absurdity hit me like a thunderclap. Listening to a professor who was an expert in the subject was the reason I was in college, not mindlessly completing homework.
We speak of getting an education, as if it were any other commodity capable of being acquired. I already have too much stuff in my life. I do not need something more. I do not need an education. What I need is to do something. I need and want to learn. Learning is an inquisitive activity. It is an enterprise of curiosity, mystery, and adventure. It is non-linear and for heaven's sake it is not fast. It is not frantic and harried and driven. Learning is deep and therefore slow. As Andrew Marvell mused, had we but world enough and time I would go back to the university, seek out instructors in matters I wished to learn, and not allow myself to run in a terrified attempt to outpace the inexorable charge of the educational machine bearing down upon me.
So what can teachers do, chained as they are inside the belly of the beast and forced to turn the cranks to make it go? We can tantalize our students with tastes of the true, the good, and the beautiful. We can make them thirsty with grains of the curious and mysterious. We can take them to the edge of awe and wonder and inspire them with the possibility of one day being freed from education so that they can truly learn.